Churches work to give "new life" to holy artifacts from closed parishes
Each morning, the sun lights up the unflinching faces of those left behind when St. Boniface Church in Jersey City, N.J., closed last year after nearly 150 years. They're not the faces of the German or Puerto Rican immigrants who once prayed there and enjoyed eating pig knuckles or rice and beans in the parish hall after Mass.
They're the faces of St. Francis, St. Elizabeth and St. Joseph--immortalized in intricate stained glass. The windows were crafted in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1896, parish records show. The donors, who received Communion in the Sunday morning light that filtered through the colored glass, are gone, and church officials say some are resting in cemeteries in Jersey City and in nearby Colonia, N.J.
But with the church closed, the archdiocese plans to install the windows in a mortuary chapel at one of the cemeteries to bring the stained glass closer to the original donors and parishioners.
“It’s a match made in heaven,” said Troy Simmons, 32, the patrimony project manager for the Archdiocese of Newark and the man responsible for overseeing the relocation of church art and architecture. “No pun intended.”
As more and more churches close in cities in the East, the Catholic Church is grappling with how to respectfully and responsibly handle all the ornate statues, stained glass windows, Egyptian onyx altars and handcrafted confessionals that are left behind.
By finding new homes for these objects within the diocese or in a church in another state, church officials hope to give new life to some very old (and not so old) pieces of art and in so doing preserve the memory of the original donors as well as a bit of the cultural history of a bygone era.
Although church officials in Philadelphia, Newark, Boston and New York are all dealing with the issue in their own way, they share one common concern: none want to see a consecrated religious object on eBay, in a bar or in the garbage. But finding a suitable home for all these objects isn't easy. For one thing, it's hard to keep up with the volume of art and artifacts coming in from closed churches.
Reports show that in the last three years, the Archdiocese of Boston closed nearly 60 parishes. And last year, the Archdiocese of New York announced plans to close more than two dozen churches.
“This issue is one that the church has never seemingly had to face in modern time,” Simmons said from his Newark office, with remnants of closed parishes temporarily adorning his walls. “The reason this is important is not just that it matters to the little old Italian lady in Newark. It's important on a local and national level architecturally, artistically and historically.”
Simmons is one of the nation’s few full-time church employees dedicated to staying ahead of church closings. He is trained in art and architectural preservation and has an appreciation for local history.
So do scholars outside the church. “The objects represent the pennies of the poor, faithful parishioners who contributed blood, sweat and tears to be able to beautify their churches,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Cunningham, a professor of theology at Notre Dame University and an expert on Catholic history and religion. “We owe it to them to honor their sacrifice.”
When churches close their doors, Simmons tries to contact the people whose memories of the objects might be the strongest: the donors. “Most are dead and gone,” he said, but occasionally he gets calls from concerned families that want to know what, for example, will happen to the marble baptismal font they gave the church.
While waiting for a new home, the items are typically stored in warehouses. Ed Rafferty coordinates the ecclesiastical exchange program in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He says that he's sent items from the central storage warehouse to parishes in Oregon, the Carolinas and Texas. The warehouse doors are only open to those within the church, though, and he doesn’t sell to the general public.
“Once something is consecrated for sacred use,” Cunningham explained, “it's not going to go on the market.” Church law forbids it.
Of course, not every item will find a new home immediately. And sometimes, things do end up with church-approved businesses or clearinghouses of church furniture. But that's a last resort.
What church officials don't want is for priests in poor parishes to sell items to dealers and have the objects appear someplace embarrassing, like in a nightclub.
So even before churches close, Simmons is working to educate priests and the public alike about what treasures are hidden in their churches. Once a month, he travels to a different part of the diocese to take pastors on tours of their own churches, pointing out priceless Harry Clark Art Deco stained glass windows in one and what he believes may be a Rembrandt in another.
Simmons also leads tours for the public to the recently closed churches and to those that are still very much alive. The more people know, he says, the more in tune they can be with the original intention of this “living art”--art that is meant to instruct and inspire. One stop along the route last year was St. Boniface's.
There, the St. Joseph window, which had already traveled from the Old World to the New World, will soon journey to the resting place of the church's original parishioners. Generations from now, descendants of those original German parishioners can come to the cemetery chapel and gaze upon something their ancestors once gazed upon.
Sitting back in his office chair, thumbing through a book on the history of that parish and its windows, Simmons mused, “The spirit moves on.” And, alluding to the belief in resurrection of the soul, he nodded with satisfaction and a widening grin. “They get a new life.” Then, he closed the book.